Alexander Rodchenko, Stairs,1930 (c) A. Rodchenko, V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow House of Photography Museum.

Alexander Rodchenko, White Sea Canal, 1933.

Alexander Rodchenko, a New Visual Language for a Mass Audience

Alexander Rodchenko, Pioneer Girl. 1930, Gelatin-silver print, 49.6 x 37 cm., The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Alexander Rodchenko, Fire Escape (with a man) (c), A. Rodchenko, V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow House of Photography Museum.

Alexander Rodchenko, Pioneer with a Horn, 1930.

Alexander Rodchenko, Girl with a Leica, 1934 (c) A. Rodchenko - V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow House of Photography.


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Alexander Rodchenko –
Revolution in Photography

December 18, 2009-March 17, 2010

Revolution in Photography reveals Alexander Rodchenko's talent for experimentation as well as the range of his work. From sharp-witted photomontage to documentary reportage in Moscow’s streets, from dynamic architectural studies to intimate portraits of his circle, Rodchenko's photographic activity had a breadth and scope matched by few artists of his day. Abandoning "pure" art in favor of a visual language that could address a mass audience, Rodchenko applied himself as a photographer and designer to the production of posters, magazine and book design, advertisements for state-owned enterprises as well as photojournalism and other forms of documentary photography.

The exhibition presents a retrospective of Russian avant-garde artist Alexander Rodchenko, including more then 200 vintage photographs some never before exhibited in the West. Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) is one of the great innovators of 20th-century avant-garde art and one of its most versatile practitioners. Having first gained international acclaim as a painter, sculptor and graphic designer, Rodchenko took up the practice of photography in the early 1920s, convinced that it would become the artistic medium of his era. Over the course of the following two decades he developed a bold new vocabulary of acute camera angles, extreme foreshortenings of perspective and close-ups of surprising details. In addition to introducing design as an integral element of photography, Rodchenko’s approach balanced formal concerns with an interest in documenting the social and political life of the Soviet Union. In the process, he helped to change the way people perceived not only photography, but also the role of the photographer.

In presenting a comprehensive selection of his work, this exhibition offers a significant opportunity to re-evaluate Rodchenko’s achievements in photography as well as to reconsider the fertile and tumultuous moment in which he worked – a period that extended from the intellectually adventurous Lenin years to the repressive cultural regime initiated by Stalin. It also allows us to appreciate how fresh and daring his work still is today. Indeed, though more than half a century has passed since his death, his many significant accomplishments continue to influence a wide range of contemporary practitioners.

Aleksandr Mikhailovich Rodchenko (Alexander Rodchenko) was born on December 5, 1891, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father, Mikhail Mikhailovich Rodchenko, was a theatre designer. His mother, Olga Evdokimovna, was a laundress. From 1908-1910 Rodchenko was a dental technician at Dental School of Dr. Natanson. From 1910-1914 he studied art at the Kazan School of Art under Nikolai Fechin, then at the Stroganov Art Institute in Moscow.

Rodchenko experienced the influence of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Wassily Kandinsky, and other artists working in abstract style. He was the pupil and assistant of Vladimir Tatlin, and his work was initially influenced by Cubism, then Cubo-Futurism. His early drawings and paintings followed the developments of Suprematism and Futurism. He worked with a wide variety of media as a decorator, furniture and theatre designer, printer, painter, sculptor, and photographer. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rodchenko joined the Bolsheviks. He believed in new opportunities for art and became active in many applications of art, illustration, commercial designs, and photography. In 1921 Rodchenko replaced Wassily Kandinsky as Chairman of State Institute of Artistic Culture (INKHUK) and Chairman of Museum Bureau and Russian State Art Acquisitions Commission. In 1921 he co-wrote the Constructivist's Manifesto. He collaborated with writer and actor Vladimir Mayakovsky, director Vsevolod Meyerhold, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, filmmaker Dziga Vertov, and many others. From 1923-1928 he collaborated with Osip Brik in the Left Front of Art (LEF). In 1925 Rodchenko won four silver medals at Paris International Exhibition.

Alexander Rodchenko became one of the founders of Constructivism and Productivism in Russia. His innovations revolutionized the art of still photography. He used his camera as if it was a drawing instrument. He mastered the use of photo-montage, odd angles, wide frames, and photo-series. His way of photographing from unusual and obscured viewpoints, exploring the potential of shadows, opened new dimensions in photo-art. Rodchenko shot his subjects from high above or below angles, to shock the viewer and to postpone recognition. He made important photo-portraits of actress Lily Brik, writer Osip Brik, actor Vladimir Mayakovsky, director Vsevolod Meyerhold, director Dziga Vertov, director Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and other Russian culture luminaries. He also organized many photography exhibitions. Rodchenko was the art director in several Soviet-made films. His most innovative and interesting work was his graphic design and montage works for advertisements and movie posters, which was his major contribution to film-poster art. His posters for such films as 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), 'Kinoglaz' (1924), and other works, are regarded among the highest achievements in film-poster art.

In 1928 Rodchenko wrote a manifesto titled "Against the Synthetic Portrait, For the Snapshot" in which he argues for the documentary objectivity of photography. "Snapshots allow no one to idealize or falsify Lenin", wrote Rodchenko. He was soon attacked by Stalinists and was accused of supporting Trotsky and his ideas. His exhibitions were canceled, he was dismissed from major projects and jobs. For many years he was deprived of livelihood. That caused him a depression, high blood pressure, and other health problems. Rodchenko was officially charged with "bourgeois formalism" and his photography was censored and banned from public shows. However, from 1934-1938, he was commissioned to make several photo-albums for Soviet propaganda, such as: "Belomor-kanal imeni Stalina" and "Krasnaya Armia" (Red Army 1938). Rodchenko made a beatiful job, but remained under suspicion during many years of the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.

Alexander Rodchenko was in opposition to Socialist realism. From the late 1930's to the end of his life he was forced to quit photography amidst the paranoia of Stalinist censorship. He returned to painting sporadically after 1942, made a series of abstract decorative compositions, but his art was ostracized. He lived in poverty and obscurity for the last twenty years of his life. Rodchenko was constantly harassed by officials for his art, his membership in the Union of Soviet Artists was canceled, and he was made an outcast. His membership was restored only in 1954, after the death of Stalin. Rodchenko died of a stroke on December 3, 1956, in Moscow, and was laid to rest in Donskoe Cemetery in Moscow, Russia.

The exhibition Revolution in Photography is made in collaboration with the Moscow House of Photography.

Alexander Rodchenko. Portrait of Rodchenko's Mother, 1924. Private collection © DACS 2008/Rodchenko archives.

Alexander Rodchenko, Pro Eto. Ei i Mne (About This. To Her and to Me), 1923, Book by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Book with nine letterpress photomontages, page: 9-1/16 x 5-15/16", Printer: Tsinkografiia V.Ts.I.K.. Publisher: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo (State Publishing House), Moscow. Edition: 3,000.

Alexander Rodchenko, Knigi (Books), 1924, Poster, © A. Rodchenko, V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow House of Photography Museum.

Alexander Rodchenko, Lily Brik. Portrait for the poster Knigi, 1924, © A. Rodchenko, V. Stepanova Archive, Moscow House of Photography Museum.